Montreal is a microcosm of its own. Some of us sometimes refer to it as a village, which is true to a certain degree. Having worked in an industry that connects music, art, and fashion for quite a while now, you can start seeing the routines and the repetitions. Fine-tuning our eyes to capture every detail of things we like and dislike. The same people circling around the city and hopping from one event to another. 5 à 7. Same outfits. Same smiles. Soft handshakes. A sort of fake smirk with a pinch of sarcasm. Our comfort zone. Their comfort zone. But out of that monotone sentiment comes a few distinct characters; the ones that we cannot put our finger on. Unique individuals—positive energy that transpires when they enter the room. There’s always a handful of them in any city.
Like Dubai-born Iraqi artist Narcy. Aware of his political views and a savoir faire of how to express those views in a positive and constructive way, he’s forever evolving. Always in the constant search of bettering himself as an artist, but more importantly, as a human. Having set his stones with his group Euphrates, Yassin Alsalman did not obtain his voice, but more likely built his own foundations. A modern day Arabian Renaissance Man. He is a one man hub connecting various people and mediums to create one strong entity. Like Voltron.
He is probably one of the most steady and adaptive artists out of Montreal. A voice that has been heard and that people still listen to. Culture is what drives him. Progression and evolution. He is never still. A well-rounded player like Steve Nash, he dribbles and juggles at the same time. I caught up with him at the Festival Arabe de Montreal.
JOHNNY F. KIM: Let’s begin this conversation by first telling us who you are.
NARCY: My name is Yassin Alsalman. People that know of my art know me as Narcy, or the Narcicyst. I am a son, a father, a citizen of the world, a professor, an MC, an artist, and a lover of life.
In the beginning of your career, people knew you as Narcy the activist/rapper, but at the moment you are a more complete artist. How multidisciplinary are you?
I dabble in everything. I’m a Gemini, so I get bored quickly and I need to multi-task to keep myself occupied. Sometimes, it can get overwhelming, but at the same time, satisfying to all sides of my brain. I think due to the fact that I did my studies while pursuing my music career being surrounded by artists of all mediums, I started trying things and being curious.
I make visual art with others; I challenge my artist friends to do collaborations; I don’t see a reason in limiting your artistry. I could never breakdance though—or DJ—or draw. So I like to make art that helps add to a positive narrative of the world, as opposed to shit that makes the world the same or boring. I believe in challenging what is expected of myself, as well as those around me.
“I FOUND A BALANCE BETWEEN BEING AN ARTIST AND A BUSINESSMAN… THAT COMPLETELY CHANGED MY WRITING PROCESS.”
So, your new album, World War Free Now!, was released not too long ago. Having followed your work in that last few years, this particular album seemed different to me—the music on the production, but also lyrically. How did you approach the writing process?
I wrote World War Free Now! over the course of four years. When I first started, it was experimentation with kicks and snares, recording musicians, and really filtering my verbal thoughts down to a minimal place where I was conveying what was I FEELING, not what I was saying only. About two years in, I left Canada and moved to the Emirates to pursue the opportunity to start a boutique arts label. I then started seeing the math, as they say; I learned the business, I learned strategy, and I also saw a lot of the bureaucracy that contains our arts, both in Arabia and in the West. I found a balance between being an artist and a businessman.
That completely changed my writing process. As I grew, I released two EPs. Leap of Faith, which was taken from the WWFN sessions, but I needed to unload that personal side of experience. Immigration, frustration, sacrifice. I then found out my wife was pregnant and we journeyed back to Canada. While our child was still unborn, I released We Are The Medium, which was really the ethos of our artist collective by the same name. It was me again, filtering out my thoughts so the album could be more simple, more direct, and more emotional/human. I was trying to figure out how to resettle, both artistically and personally.
I finished WWFN after my child was born. I felt it was necessary to do that so I could really let this birth sit in my heart and understand my new purpose. My son ended up on my album, and the album is really a message to him, about us, now, in this crazy world we live in. I am hoping in his time, when he is my age, the world will be different for him. I wanted this album to be a letter from a father to a son, so I could explain to him later on my decision-making and how much I cherish him.
The writing process was gruesome. I put so many bars on the chopping board, shit that I was proud of. I have to give it to my wife, she dealt with me mixing snares and kicks forever. My brothers, Sandhill and Buddablaze, my two studio partners and co-producers on the album. They pushed me to do the best I could, and I thank them for that daily.
Has any of your political views or personal philosophy changed since the birth of your son?
As you know, everything changed when I became a father. Your worldly ways don’t change, but vices, your wants. But I started seeing more hope through that new role, and realizing how important 1 to 1 impact is. I stopped chanting slogans and put my energy into really changing minds around me, or having conversations with people around me that might affect their energy, their well-being, as well as mine. I also took on the role of a professor at Concordia University, and having a child really made me appreciate the multi-generational experience of life. I’m in my 30s, my son is in his first years, and my students are in their teens and 20s. The reflection is amazing. I see all the pain around me, but I also see the hope and the heart. The infinite possibility of life.
So how much of it has affected your writing?
I became more poetic, more sincere, more heartfelt, more warm. I was angrier in my 20s. I am now calmer but more direct. Just as intense, but more focused. It’s like learning to control a superpower.
As an artist, more specifically a rapper from Canada, what were some of the difficulties you had to encounter when it came to music and staying relevant?
I never really worried about being relevant. I am on the fringe of society and of the so-called industry. I never really focused my energy on being famous more than I wanted to build a sustainable career and a community of thinkers and creatives that can really affect the world. And I am achieving that goal slowly, day by day.
“OUR STORY IS STILL BEING WRITTEN, BUT NOT BY US.”
I live in Quebec, which is already a fractured cultural landscape. I am the son of Iraqis who grew up questioned about identity and allegiances. I am a Muslim who is battling his internal questions while seeing our image tarnished internally and externally. We are dealing with a story that is still unfolding. So over time, you take a step forward to make it better; society takes you back 10.
Canada is also a small industry. You have incredible success stories like the whole OVO camp out in Toronto, but it also sets a precedence for artists here to think, THAT IS WHAT I WANT. Montreal is an incredible creative and inspirational place. Our producers are groundbreaking, from A-Trak to someone like Kaytranada. We are so diverse in our sound that it is changing the music game. So, all this to say, I am not looking to stay relevant, because I am relevant to daily lives of the “other,” of people outcasted by society because of who they are. Our story is still being written, but not by us. My mission is to help create a template for the next generations to be able to write their own story. Just like Edward Said did for us. Just like hip-hop did for us.
Being honest—is the best policy.
In a previous interview with local rap group The Posterz, I asked them to comment about current state of hip-hop in Montreal. On how much the Anglophone scene is not as strong as the French one. Do you care to comment on it? Or more precisely, your thoughts on Drake pretty much carrying the torch—monopolizing—Canadian-made rap.
I think I answered that above, but I will say that Drake did not monopolize the game. Drake found a lane and drove through that motherfucker as hard as he [could]. He has a strong team, an amazing ear for music and melody, and a great work acumen. There are also many other factors that play into that story that I don’t have to delve into.
I would say, for artists who complain about a low ceiling in Canada, step outside the building and learn the structure, then figure out what room, floor, or roof you want to be on. There isn’t enough I can stress about having a team. I don’t have one per se, and that’s why it has taken me this long to get where I am. I have people who have helped me along the way, who I consider allies.
Manage your expectations, not your opportunities. Use your opportunities to their maximum capacity and push yourself and your city. Don’t think the city will ride your wave. Focus on catching your wave. Think Different, word to that Syrian in a turtleneck, Mr. Jobs.
“IT IS OUR DUTY TO HELP THROUGH THE ARTS BECAUSE POLITICS FAILED US AND OUR RELIGIOUS FIGURES FAILED US TOO. IT IS TIME TO TAKE THE MATTERS INTO OUR OWN HANDS AND CREATE A NEW STORY. “
We are aware of your roots and where you stand as a Middle Eastern artist. With the current state the world is in, how much of a difference or, more specifically, how important is it to you to educate people through your music and art?
Early on in my music, when I was in Euphrates—our Iraqi Trio of producers and me—I was hyper reactionary. Everything around us was crumbling and we felt a sense of urgency at the impending doom that was headed our motherland’s way, and our way in tow. We knew that shit would not go down well because the intention behind the battle was evil. It was not a righteous fight.
Now, the world is worse than it was. My intent now with music is to be pro-active. To speak on our humanity, our daily experience, our common humility, and growth as a community. In turn, to use whatever power I can garner to not shift the narrative, but write a new one. We’ve been too busy trying to rewrite history, I think we just need to write our own. We can never topple the media machine that churns out bullshit every day of the week. We, as people, can’t also challenge the language of violence as individuals. It is important to elevate with the art, open the conversation and really change the lane the world is going in. Our youth are some of the biggest victims of the current state of our world. It is our duty to help through the arts because politics failed us and our religious figures failed us too. It is time to take the matters into our own hands and create a new story.
I now am myself. Once you pull people in with the sonic and the visual, you then bring them your truth. Before, I did it backwards. But it was an important process nonetheless.
You still remain a positive voice for the Arab youth, as well as being a teacher—what do you want them to cherish through your teachings and your music.
Be yourself. Know your power. Never sacrifice your integrity for another person, or a paycheck. Know your power. Maximize on your potential. Be critical. Be understanding. Be kind. Be just.
You mentioned a bit earlier about the people that surround you. Tell us a bit more about your collective “We Are the Medium” and explain to us some of your goals.
Our goal is to create a template for young African, Arab, Asian, Native, Indigenous people to learn how to express themselves and counter the bully of a world we live in. My eventual goal is to have a think tank of sorts, an entity that Hollywood would come to for cultural consultation, to create products that are friendly to the world, to shift peoples’ minds and, to put it simply, create amazing art. I want to produce films and act. I want to see some of my favorite people shine. My goal is to rebuild the community we all lost in war, displacement, or racism. To create a new nation of internationalists.
“DON’T THINK THE CITY WILL RIDE YOUR WAVE. FOCUS ON CATCHING YOUR WAVE.”
You recently had a one time show titled Narcinerama at the Place Des Arts, part of the “Festival du Monde Arabe” in Montreal. How did this project come to fruition?
I was given a month to put together a rap show at a venue that is used for ballet and what they like to call “high arts.” I wanted to challenge both the space and the way to articulate our music and presentation. I hired a 9 piece choir, a quartet, and 3 of my favorite artists from Canada: Nantali Indongo, Meryem Saci, and Ian Kamau. Finally, I watched my wife, for the last ten years, create some of the most instrumental and inspirational art I’ve ever come across. So she came on board and created an entire visual experience for the show. We rehearsed for a month and did our first performance as a collective message about the current state of the world, the abuse of power in our communities and in the power structure that exists around us. The photos says it all man. It was an example of what we could do, when we have the budget to do it as big as we want to, which we are working towards. Narcinerama is something I’m going to expand on in the coming years Insha’Allah.
You are currently adding the finishing touches to your latest video. Can you tell us more about it and the concept behind it?
You know, when people share the experience of their family from the motherland, they tend to really share this Borat, idiot, backwards representation of them. I wanted to do the complete opposite and show how we in the West are quick to judge those who really know how to be free, because their countries have never allowed them to be.
The video is for a song off my album called “Makoo,” which translates to “ain’t.” The hook is in Arabic and is saying, “Ain’t nobody better than us, ain’t nobody better looking than us, ain’t nobody as sweet as us”—it’s a celebration of culture. I play Jassem, who is visiting his cousin in the West, played by Montreal’s MC Ceas Rock. Ali judges Jassem as embarrassing and backwards, but when it comes down to it, Jassem is the life of the party and truly is comfortable in his own skin. He is free of all the misconceptions and walls we built in the so-called civilized and “free”world. We really aren’t as free, in our souls, as we should be. Makoo is about appreciating the root, because without it, there is no flourishing off the land.
Anything in the works in the near future?
So much, man, I’m about to drop a comic book/art book based on World War Free Now. I’m teaching at Concordia, my class has grown from 70 students to 240 a semester, which is a lot of responsibility. Writing new music always. Focusing on health, family, and art. Watch out for the Medium!